The idea of enabling someone’s addiction refers to how a person removes the consequences of an addict’s behavior, often unintentionally, in what they believe is an attempt to help the person. Enabling is often viewed in the context of codependency. People who are codependent frequently feel that they must solve the other person’s problem (e.g., an addictive behavior). Their attempts to solve the person’s problem often end in them taking on responsibilities for the person.
Typically, people who are enablers or codependent begin with good intentions, but as time goes on, their actions simply help the addict justify their behavior and continue with their addictive behavior. Eventually, resentment begins to build on both sides of the relationship, and very often, the person with the addictive problem begins to underperform in important areas of life, whereas the person who is enabling them begins to take on more responsibilities for that person and make excuses for them.
This results in the addict continuing with their addictive behavior without suffering any of the consequences that their behavior should produce. For instance, an enabling spouse of an alcoholic may often call the person’s place of employment and tell the employer they are sick and cannot come to work, when in fact the person is either intoxicated or suffering from a hangover.
Enablers and codependents are often very controlling and believe they are helping the person, when in fact they are just supporting the addiction.
Signs of Enabling
Enabling is not a clinical notion, and there are no real research studies or academic treatises on the topic, although there is research into how dysfunctional relationships develop and how they present that is relevant to this topic. The potential signs of someone who is enabling a person with a substance use disorder or some type of behavioral addiction are taken from information in the books Codependent No More, The Role of Will in Addiction and Recovery, and Substance Use Disorders and Addictions.
Some signs that you may be enabling someone’s addiction include:
- Rationalizing the person’s behavior by blaming other situations or even blaming yourself
- Cleaning up after the person’s messes (e.g., making a car payment for someone because they can’t afford it after spending their money on drugs)
- Keeping thoughts and feelings to yourself in order to avoid conflict and angering your loved one
- Putting the other person’s emotional, financial, and other needs ahead of your own needs
- Ignoring obviously detrimental behaviors by the other person, including stealing, lying, and other forms of deceit
- Making excuses and/or lying to cover up for the other person’s behavior
- Performing activities or assuming responsibilities that the person should do for themselves, such as shopping for them, loaning them money, giving them rides, cleaning up after them, etc.
- Frequently feeling as if you do not have time for yourself anymore because you are spending so much time caring and doing things for the other person
- Frequently coming to the rescue of the person when their addictive behavior gets them into trouble
- Frequently making ultimatums or rules and then backing down from them because you know you cannot stick to them
- Frequently giving the person “one last chance” to change
- Feeling more and more resentful toward the person with the substance abuse issue because they do not seem to care about things that affect you
- Having frequent anger outbursts in other contexts and with other people (displacing your anger on others)
- Frequently feeling emotionally and physically drained and/or exhausted
- Outright signs of denial regarding the person’s substance use issue and attempts to justify their behavior by explaining that their behavior is “normal” for them
- Outright signs of denial regarding your own enabling behavior and your dysfunctional relationship with the person by rationalizing them as “normal” for you
The patterns of enabling the other person’s substance abuse issue and developing a codependent relationship results in minimizing the effects of the person’s behavior, justifying and normalizing their substance abuse (believing that the person needs to relieve stress by drinking and that this is “normal” for them), avoiding issues in the relationship, and continuing to justify the addictive behavior. Even though the enabling person may feel there is a problem in the relationship, they often do not express their feelings and suppress them. They often avoid the whole issue by trying to maintain the image that everything is fine or normal for them. However, individuals who are enabling someone else’s substance abuse or addiction, or in a codependent relationship, are often very quick to point out others’ faults who are doing the same thing. They can readily see issues outside themselves, but when it comes to their own behavior, they attempt to justify it.
If you can identify with any of the above situations, you should consider how you may be enabling your loved one’s behavior. As mentioned above, even though you may have good intentions, such behavior only worsens the addiction.
Can You Stop Enabling Behavior?
The answer to the above question is “yes.” However, individuals often need assistance. Set goals to stop the behavior, such as:
- Recognize and break through your denial. See the situation for what it is and the person’s behavior for what it is. Stop pretending that your actions are making the situation better.
- Stop believing you can fix the person. You can’t make someone choose to get well.
- Set rules and boundaries. Let the person know that you will no longer clean up for them following a drug or alcohol binge, call work for them when they are hungover, buy them alcohol, etc. Explain your reasons.
- Recognize and acknowledge your own feelings. You need to take care of yourself.
You may wish to attend a peer support group, such as Al-Anon or Nar-Anon. Attempting to get yourself and your loved one into therapy can be helpful; however, the person with the substance abuse issue has to admit or recognize that they have a problem. This is where trying to organize a formal substance use disorder intervention for the person may be helpful. A substance use disorder intervention is a formalized process where friends and family members confront the person and explain why they need to get help for their problem. You can learn more about substance use disorder interventions and even get professional assistance in putting one together by visiting the website of the Association of Intervention Specialists.